Art has a long history of creating awareness of the social situation of its time. This could be considered as one of its most honourable purposes. All throughout history, plenty of artists have used art as a tool to express their discontent with the system, the people in power, the suffering of classes, and even war.
As a cyclical, symbiotic relationship, artists are constantly influenced by their social environment, producing art that will later influence society. However, the story they want to tell will be shaped by their personal experience, their thoughts and deepest feelings. Art is a product of a specific time but also and most importantly the product of a personal experience.
In the case of today’s Woman in Art, I will try to make evident how this amazing, strong woman went through the complicated process of digesting reality and producing art. I personally admire her and consider her a fighter, a documentarian of her time whose work typifies an era.
Käthe Kollwitz (1867 -1945) was a German artist considered to be an expressionist. She was soaked in the reality that surrounded her and acted first as an observer and then, as the voice of the lower classes. She captured their suffering and through her art attempted to create an awareness of their situation. Kollwitz spent most of her life in Berlin. There, she married a doctor and lived most of her life in he poor area where he worked. As a result, she would be surrounded daily by humble people and their problems such as hunger, poor working and living conditions, and death. She would listen to her husband’s patients’ stories and use these testimonies as her main object of study. When we look at the amazing amount of sketchbooks she completed, we can understand how hard she struggled to make their stories as clear as possible, to send a message in the most faithful way possible.
“I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” Wrote Kollwitz in 1920 in her diary.
Her humanitarian needs were also a result of the way she was brought up. Because not only society in general terms shape an artist (or a person) but also the first institution we are ever part of, ‘family’. Her father was a radical Social democrat who became a mason and house builder. Her mother was the daughter of a Lutheran priest who was expelled from the official Evangelical State Church in Prussia and founded an independent congregation. Her education was greatly influenced by her grandfather’s lessons in religion and socialism.
However, Kollwitz claimed choosing the workers’ hard life as her subject had more to do with what she found simply beautiful. Rather than feeling pity or sympathy for these people suffering under severe social contradictions, she perceived the beauty in them. When looking back at her work it could be understandable that we do not share her sense of beauty, but this is where the magic eye of the artist gets to do its job. What Kollwitz meant with “beauty” was probably not the conventional beauty we may be thinking of. I will take the risk to say what she really meant was “Authenticity”. A mother next to her dying son may not be ‘beautiful’ in a pleasant, aesthetical way, but it is by all means, a sincere, deep expression of the human soul in a particular period of time.
Kollwitz’s work talks for itself. In the “Weaver’s Rebellion”, she used the historical setting to show the state of the German lower classes in the early 20th century. These scenes she captured were repeated all over Europe: a group of desperate men plotting to fight against their miserable living conditions.
She began working on this series in 1893, exhibiting it five years later and becoming immediately famous. The series consists of six images: Need, Death, Conspiracy, March of the Weavers, Storming the Gate, and End. All of which one can’t look at without feeling compassion for the characters represented. The first two prints depict the causes that will inspire the weavers to rebel; in the first one, a mother bending over her sick child and in the second one, death comes for them. A quite usual scene of the time and a product of the starving and horrible health conditions of the workers and their families. The third lithograph, “Conspiracy” features the planning of the uprising, and the last three are meant to reproduce in order the realisation of the uprising. The “March of the weavers” and the following works, depict their marching to the house of their employer, the violence of the revolt, and its end with a brutal military repression. Rather than a literal illustration of this drama, she worked on the expressions of their faces and dug into people’s deep feelings like misery, hope, and courage.
“Weaver’s Rebellion” shaped her upcoming work. She continued to confront difficult themes like poverty, infant mortality, violent rebellion, and retaliatory slaughter for her whole career. And these topics are never disguised. They are portrayed, as they are; dark, rough, upsetting. When we look at these peoples’ faces, we cannot help but see a gesture of exhaustion, hopeless expressions of having seen their kids starving to death, the anger and bitterness in their eyes. It is the most honest representation of human suffering.
Kollwitz emphasises the weavers’ environment in the monochromatic graphic techniques she cultivated specifically for this purpose. She dove on the search of a medium that would allow her to express the cruelty of her subjects. She finally picked from different ways of Printmaking, lithography being one of her most used techniques. This allowed her to develop a tougher look, less detailed and more true to people’s faces and gestures. With simple strokes, angled lines, and an amazing economy of means that would come to characterise her entire work.
Kollwitz did not only represent the matters of the poor but also the role of women in all these critical situations. With a strong feminist agenda, she pursued the purpose of depicting women as the important characters they were. Women are not just looking as outsiders but participating actively and even provoking the revolts.
These can be clearly seen in her second famous series “The Peasant War” which depicts another revolt against oppression. Women are present in all the phases of the story, ending with a mother illuminating her fallen son with a lantern in a dark field of corpses. This wonderfully dramatic scene would not be of the same strength without a female figure and her beautifully sad gesture of affection.
Kollwitz is considered to be an Expressionist. What Kollwitz had in common with these artists was probably a shared cynicism towards the ruling classes and the disgust with war planners. These demanded art forms that were honest and direct, less decorated and less rhetoric. Their aim was to produce an impact through expression.
Expressionism was born as an antithesis to Impressionism’s passive depiction of light and nature portraits. These artists aimed to make the viewer feel with no filters. They weren’t looking for an aesthetically pleasing effect. They needed and artistic method that would allow them to work quickly and reproduce their work cost effectively and that is how they came up with printmaking, used for the very first time as an artistic and not as a graphic method. Most of the work of this period including Kollwitz’s, were woodcuts, intaglio, or lithography works.
Kollwitz was devastated by the suffering and loss of human life, and when World War I came, it shook her even harder. At this time she went from witness to victim, losing her youngest son Peter on the battlefield in 1914. This caused her to suffer a prolonged depression but she didn’t stop her work. “The Grieving Parents’ was a sculpture she made in honour of her son and fallen comrades, which was then put as a war memorial.
It is during the war that she publically becomes a pacifist and a socialist and this political influence becomes evident in her work. And a little after the war ended, she produced the cycle “War” in woodcut form, including the works The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People. These woodcuts focus on the anguish suffered by wives, parents, and children whose men fought and died in the war. In “The Sacrifice” a new mother offers up her infant as a sacrifice to the cause. In “The Widow II” a woman and her baby lie in a heap, perhaps dead from starvation. “Volunteers” is the only print to show combatants. In it, her son Peter takes his place next to Death, who leads a band of young men in an ecstatic procession off to war.
The suffering for her loss and the cruelty of those years are easily recognised in these series’ featuring so many emotions; grief and fear in large size shocking compositions. She also worked in advertisement against war producing a series of posters that are still used by pacifist activists, such as, “Germany’s Children Starving, “Bread” and Never Again War”, some of the strongest anti-war propaganda of all times.
In 1933, after the establishment of the National-Socialist regime, her pieces were taken out of the museum and prohibited to be exhibited. However, the Nazis would later use the image of “Mother and Son” for their own political propaganda. Three years later, the Gestapo arrested her and her husband but both get released because of her age. Her husband died in 1940 and her grandson in the front.
Having experienced both great wars and dying in 1945, just a few days before the war was over, Käthe Kollwitz was not only a great artist but a survivor, whose work helps us understand the terrible conditions of her time and the cruelty of war. Her legacy is widely recognised in Germany and throughout the world. Today many museums exist in her honour, and her sculptures are exhibited in prominent public places.
Her images are a strong call for peace, applicable also for our times. In a field dominated by men, her identity as a woman, mother, and artist, adds new meaning to art produced during and between wars, a dramatic component of personal suffering and loss. In other words, Kollwitz’ work serves as a chronicle but most importantly as a true, emotional reflexion.